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Cognitive Theory of Learning

Discuss About The Cognitive Learning Theory And Applications In Nursing Education?

Learning, although has been bound to classrooms and lectures for a long time, is now getting evolved. Educators are looking for ways to implement suitable methods that can make a difference in learning. The theories put forth by Pavlov (classical conditioning) to Piaget (Constructivisim), all deal with innumerable ways to enrich learning. Although the theories are different in their approach and use varying methods to achieve the goal, their primary focus is on how to enrich learning experiences in adult education.

The educational psychologists and researchers strongly believe that understanding these theories can help in enhancing efficiency in learning and standardizing the learning methods. (Aliakbari, 2015). These adult learning theories focus on one point- since the primary object, here are adults, they are self-motivated enough to understand the value of learning, and can understand its importance. Hence, experts believe that applying theories of adult learning in a suitable environment, has to be by accentuating their personal desire to learn and also by inducing internal motivation, rather than using external stimulation. (Chen, 2014). Other experts equally believe that any of these theories can be applied to adult learning, in any professional settings. (McAllister, 2003). Since the subjects here are adults, (as in nursing education too), the perspective of the individuals is clear- they have come to learn skills that are essential for living (or career development) and hence, use of adult learning theory can come in extremely handy.

Although every theory brings to our attention a different focal point of adult learning, and has an alternate method to suggest strengthening learning perspectives, each theory is, on its own, complete. Therefore, in this study, we are going to look upon the salient features of cognitive theory of learning by Jean Piaget and how it can be applied to nursing education.

Cognitive learning theory, put forth by Jean Piaget, emphasizes on the use of concept maps to increase the capacity of learning new skills in adult students. (Biniecki, 2015). Cognitive theory, therefore, emphasizes on analyzing the mental processes and using it effectively to facilitate learning in an individual. Learning, therefore, is synonymous to – ‘think with the brain’. (Sincero, M. S). Hence, by studying the mental processes, and effective cognitive processes can ensure effective learning.

Piaget divided the mental processing ability of individuals in four stages – sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operations and formal operational stages. The last stage – the formal operational stage, is what we are concerned about, as this deals with the adolescent to adult learning stage. This is the stage where, according to Piaget, the cognitive development is complete, and therefore, the brain can focus on the importance and value of learning skills that might be required for the future.

Cognitive Theory in Nursing Field

Many experts believe that the cognitive theory is very much appropriate in the adult learning experiences. According to them, since the cognitive theory involves the influence of both social and personal factors, a learner can immediately relate what is being learnt to what he does in his personal life.

Here, let's take the example of a nursing practitioner or a nursing student. If an instructor is talking about the conditions of multiple sclerosis and the nursing student is able to relate that lecture to the patients they have seen that day, then the metal processing of information is complete.  Hence, learning is effective, when one can process its meaning in what is already present in their cognitive structure. (Jackson).

Also, one is required to both study the external environment – or as Piaget called – the social factors, and also the intrinsic internal behavior or personal learning abilities or traits. The learning is effective, only when both external and internal behaviors are favorable and the individual can effectively process information through mental processes.

The below diagram predicts how the behavioral patterns of a learner and his skills to accumulate and process information depends upon both his personal and social environments. This is called the social cognitive theory, where the social (environmental effects) are also considered as a factor for influencing a person’s learning experience.

The social cognitive theory, as expressed in the model above, focuses on how the environment can influence a person and increases his skills in processing effective information. This can be applied in nursing effectively, where a student learns from their external environment – the hospitals or health care centers where they take training and also from the seniors.

Cognitive theory, (with its several sub-theories), therefore, focuses on what goes inside the minds of the learner, and hence, how they can change perceptions and thoughts according to what is learnt and also their environmental conditions. (Braungart,, 2007). What makes the cognitive theory more effective as an adult learning tool is its suitability in their applications.

Adult mind, is already developed (cognitive abilities, as per Piaget, have been formed) and goals are established. Hence, providing them with a learning experience that is both conducive to their social conditions, (external environment) and cognitive framework (internal environment) can defiantly produce effective learning. Hence, the theory of cognitive learning believes in not rewarding the learners for their work, but on understanding the goals and perceptions of life they have, and work upon it to help them assimilate information efficiently.

Cognitive theory, therefore, has been applied to various adult learning experiences, and have proved to be very useful. This theory has also been applied to various fields of medicine, where the students are in their formal cognitive development stage, and are influenced by perceptions and environmental situations.

The assimilation of information accounting to the cognitive theory can be explained as – Attention – Processing- Memory storage- Action. (Braungart, A student needs to first attend to what is being taught, and process it with prior information they have on that subject as a next stage of learning. Once the processing is done, it is stored in the memory for a later stage, where it will be required for application.

The cognitive theory model can be efficaciously applied to the field of nursing and medicine to enlarge learning perspectives. There are several instances where it can be applied to the field of nursing. Here are some examples given by the researchers:

A nursing practitioner or student, needs to assimilate a plethora of information and has hoards of symptoms to learn to apply it effectively in everyday process. Bringing back the concept map here, the student can use it to get a framework of symptoms, and diagnosis to connect it to real life situations. (Biniecki,, 2015). Designing concept maps for various disorders and diseases (which are otherwise complicated) can help understand their applications. They can also use concept maps to design health care plans for specific cases and hence, can use it as a learning tool (as well as practice tool) at later stages.

Cognitive theory believes in putting into picture both the external and internal environment. A student of nurse training is imbibed with cognitive development that involves caring for the sick and also in understanding medical jargons. Thus, the personal environment – ability to think- is clear. Similarly, since what they learn is going to be useful in everyday applications, their social environment is also conducive to learning. Cognitive theory, therefore, is perfect for applying in nursing practices, either as a primary tool or an ancillary aid.

The four stages of learning, as explained by the theory - – Attention – Processing- Memory storage- Action- can be applied to the nursing field. They can learn the information, process it and store it in memory and can be applied in a clinical environment.

Motivation is also a key factor for cognitive learning. While external motivators like high salaries or clearing the training process can be one of the instigators, what motivates the learner more is internal satisfaction – in  learning new methods of treatment processes, in performing their tasks better than the others, and also in getting satisfaction out of learning (Palis,, 2014). This significant internal factor forces an individual to focus on the modules taught, and their brains to process and store information for further use. A student nurse might have goals and expectations to come out the winner or clear the training to join practice. This motivation can help in furthering the process of learning.

Simulation, (which is the focus of most adult learning theories) is one of the most effective ways of making the learners aware of what is happening around them, and thus, force them to take heed of their surroundings.(Rutherford-Hemming, 2012). Nurse educators can use simulation as a process of learning to make the courses interesting and stimulating to the students.

Applying concepts of simulation, in the case of nurse practitioners involve studying about a particular body system and its complications and seeing a real life example immediately, and relate to it. Here, application of learning, which is one of its key advantages, comes into the picture, thus, making it more significant.

Motivation, social and external environment, simulation and  information processing and application, all tools of cognitive learning theory, can be applied to the clinical environment of nursing, to make learning involvement fruitful. Since the nursing students or practicing nurses have crossed the three stages of cognitive development and are in the fourth stage, it is easier for them to use each and every stage of learning into practice.

Another way of using cognitive theory as a tool in nursing is to ensure the educators are aware of the earlier experiences of the students and their prior knowledge. The learning outcome will be more fruitful since the learners inclination towards the concept will be enhanced. A student nurse might or might not have a highly complete information about Glomerulonephritis  or Henoch-Schönlein Purpura (HSP). However, if he or she has studied basic biology, they will be aware about the basic urinary and kidney functions and how the system works. Now, what the tutor is going to provide is an advanced course about the diseases or pediatric conditions in particular. The nurses would, therefore, be able to relate or recapitulate information from already known facts and be able to store it for future use. The information might be completely clear and concise with practice (an application), but it will at least be assimilated to be noted down at a later stage.

The cognitive learning theory, based upon Piagets ideas and studies, is therefore, completely effective in adult learning environment, and also in the field of modern day nursing and nurse training.

Application of cognitive theory, or any other adult learning theories, such as Behavioral, constructive or Kolb's theory emphasize on one thing – making learning an enriching experience for the students. These theories can, therefore, create pupil who come out of the training, well aware of the facts, and will want to apply it in their practical experience.

With their rich learning experience behind them (wherein we assume the theories have been used to bring out the best in the students and their cognitive power is completely developed), the students can make the clinical work environment more efficient. It is the ability, efficiency and the experience of the workers in any workplace that makes it successful. A student nurse, with a better training behind them, can apply all that is learnt to their everyday life, making each and every endeavor successful.

This, in turn, will also promote positive work culture, with each individual putting in their best and contribute to their maximum capacity. With the individual performance at a higher level, it becomes much easier to take care of the patients and give them their best, with their professional approach.

Summary and Conclusion:

Every individual has a different way of perception of things and use of mental abilities to process effective information. Cognitive Theory is based upon the mental processing of information to apply learning in real-life environment.

Cognitive theory believes in four stages of development and each stage enhances the cognitive or mental ability of a person to process information. Since our focus is towards adult learning, we come under the formal cognitive development stage, where, Jean Piaget believes the cognitive development is complete.

  • Use of cognitive skills to acquire and process new information
  • Use prior information and enhance it by learning new insights
  • Learning focus shifts towards the goals and expectations of a learner
  • Motivation to learn and create a life for themselves plays pivotal role in the process of learning
  • The social environment of a person (nurse in a hospital environment) plays a significant role in enhancing learning experiences
  • Use of concept maps can enhance processing of information and its effective application
  • Past experiences and influences also are important to facilitate learning

The learning theories, for many decades, have helped educators and school teachers to enrich teaching experiences in children. The same can be applied to adult education effectively, (in all fields) to ensure we tap into the rich psychological resources and ideas put forth by the theorists to make learning a fun-filled and thought-provoking process.


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